Mayor: Wellness program would save city $20M

September 16, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Mayor Emanuel said the city's budget deficit cannot be closed without getting health care costs down. The program copies cutting edge programs in the private sector that require employees to take greater responsibility for their health.

Emanuel appeared at a South Side union hall alongside Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez, with whom the mayor had disagreed publicly on other issues. But the two men were on the same page Friday, agreeing that a wellness program to save the city $20 million dollars is long overdue.

"Many private sector companies, over the years, and it's accelerated, have adopted comprehensive wellness plan," Mayor Emanuel said. "The plan we have here is built on the best practices in the private sector."

"As a whole, the unions and the members they represent see the value of this investment in their well-being," Ramirez said.

The Emanuel administration estimates that only 6 to 8 percent of city workers -- including smokers, those overweight or suffering chronic illnesses -- drive two-thirds of the cost of Chicago's healthcare budget. Under the wellness program, employees will have choice: either join it or pay $50 a month more in premiums.

"If you manage it well, you get rewarded," Emanuel said about the plan. "If you don't, you have to pay more because you can't ask people, the public that is, the taxpayers, to pay for a health care problem that you can manage and actually do a good job and you can't ask the public to pay for something that you need to take responsibility. We will help you be a good steward of your health, but if you choose not to, you will pay the price and that is what you will pay."

The new program could be a tough sell to some city workers, who enjoy one of the better health care programs available:

"I like the insurance just the way it is. I like paying, where they take it out of your check of whatever. I like my insurance the way it is," Darlean Jackson, city worker, said.

The Fraternal Order of Police reportedly does not want to join the wellness program for its members. But the mayor and CFL president said Friday's announcement is a signal that labor and city hall can find common ground on some issues.

"What we have been doing from the beginning is trying to focus on areas where we think we can help the city move forward in a way that's respectful to the city's workers and also to the taxpayer," Ramirez said.

"While we look beyond at disagreements on other issue. And we never allow those disagreements to jump the rail and knock us off," Mayor Emanuel said.

Some of the still-unresolved labor issues include work rule changes for many of the trade unions and allowing private companies to compete with city employees to provide services.

Beyond the wellness program itself, the fact that Rahm Emanuel and unions could agree on something is significant and perhaps a positive sign for the future.

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